On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees (citron), branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days. Leviticus 23:40
Why are we instructed to select these four plants to celebrate Sukkot? In the Plaut Torah Commentary we read:
The citron is both fragrant and edible; it symbolizes those Jews
who are learned in the Torah and righteous in deed.
The date palm provides food, but it has no fragrance; it
symbolizes thosewho are learned but are deficient in good acts.
The myrtle is fragrant, but it yields nothing to eat; it typifies those
whose conduct is exemplary but who lack knowledge of the Torah.
And the willow, which offers neither nourishment nor fragrance,
typifies those who are deficient both in learning and in virtue.
Let them all, says God, be bound together in fellowship like
a well-tied bouquet, so that the merits of each shall benefit
all the others.
As the Executive Director of the National Federation of Temple Brotherhoods (NTFB) for the past twelve years, I have grappled with an organizational reality: many congregational brotherhoods are composed of a lot of myrtles but not enough citrons! Traditionally, of the many acts of service that Brotherhoods perform, putting up the sukkah ranks right behind High Holiday ushering. Sadly, in some temple maintenance staffs now have been given this task, so my guys are out of a job. But even sadder, when Brotherhood men are asked if they intend to actually celebrate in the sukkah, to eat their meals there, possibly to sleep in a sukkah, inevitably they respond: “No, we put it up for the kids or for other members of the temple, but Sukkot is not for us.’
I guess the good news, relatively speaking, is that so many Brotherhood members are at least myrtles, to use Rabbi Plaut’s plant distinctions. Their conduct is exemplary but they lack knowledge of Torah. Clearly this is better than being a willow, and maybe even better than being a date palm. But is it asking too much of Brotherhoods specifically and Reform congregations in general to have more citrons?
It has been said that men historically are the builders of religious institutions, but women dwell in them. Jewish men of an earlier generation provided the funding and the leadership to build our local Reform institutions; women, even if they held only limited official leadership roles, were the key players in transforming the temple building into a temple community. Over the past three decades we have witnessed the creation of a non-hierarchical, egalitarian environment within the Reform Movement. We have seen an even greater explosion of women’s participation in all religious institutions, especially in those venues that once were closed to them—pursuing adult education and Torah study. It is well established that at most adult education functions, there are a preponderance of female learners. A ratio of eighty percent female to twenty percent male is not unusual. Certainly at our annual Union Kallot, a similar ratio has been the norm.
Why does there seem to be such a lack of interest in serious adult learning and Torah study by men? Why do fewer adult men than adult women pursue their study of Torah beyond their pre-teen years? Is it because men are afraid to attend coed Intro to Judaism sessions for fear of embarrassing themselves? There is no question that men judge themselves and others by their level of accomplishment, by their sense of competency. It takes a very brave man to openly admit his ignorance, to openly exhibit his vulnerability.
If we expect men to get with the program, we must provide the proper motivation to overcome these obstacles. If we are really serious when we say that Jewish learning is a lifelong pursuit, we have to ask ourselves what we are doing to encourage our continued education process for a very large, vulnerable segment of our temple membership—adult men. Creating safe environments for men to learn or re-learn Jewish history, rituals and Torah basics should be a fundamental priority for our temple communities.
In programmatic terms, this means giving men some time and yes, physical space within the walls of our congregations to be with other men, with other men only, so that adult men of our congregations can engage in men’s work. In a Reform congregational setting, this men’s work might include learning some basic Hebrew, learning the blessings given to one’s children on a Friday night, learning how to lead a seder and studying Torah. I am not saying this work can only take place in the confines of a men’s-only environment, but for some members of our congregations it is a non-negotiable requirement if we expect them to ever show up on a Friday night or participate more actively in our board rooms and religious venues.
At NTFB we don’t claim to have all the answers. During the past decade we have developed a number of projects that emphasize men’s issues, with programs focusing on men’s health, Jewish observances and varied contemporary roles in our society. Our magazine Achimpromotes issues of broad interest to our membership throughout North America. We’re not telling our Brotherhood members to stop “building” or providing needed services to their temples and communities. Rather, we are sending a powerful message—Brotherhoods need to be key organizational instruments for re-engaging men in congregational life.
During Sukkot, it is traditional to pray for rain to nourish our needed crops. Let’s figure out how to better nourish our willows, our myrtles and our palms. And maybe, in partnership together, we will transform them into citrons. This gender related conversation is long overdue and needs to be held in our congregational sanctuaries, social halls and board rooms—and maybe even in our communal sukkot.
Doug Barden is the executive director of the North American Federation of Temple Brotherhoods.